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Families grapple with changing times

Update: October, 25/2010 - 17:20

Tug of war: Parents and children take part in outdoor activities at Vietnam Museum of Ethnology in Ha Noi on Viet Nam Family's Day, June, 28. Family's Day has been celebrated annually since 2001 as a way to remind family members of the need to take care of each other to build up a happy family. — VNA/VNS Photo
Family ties: A girl draws a picture of her family during the "Happy Family" Festival at 23/9 Park, HCM City. — VNA/VNS Photo Trang Duong
As the country changes in the midst of globalisation, families are having to adjust with shifting values, Vu Thu Ha investigates.

It was not easy for Nguyen Bich Son to decide to move out of his parent's house and start a new life six months after getting married. He faced his parents' dissatisfaction and the challenge of having to find a house and pay rent.

But Son, 27, is typical of a growing number of young people willing to make sacrifices for independence, to move away from the constraints and thinking of their parents under the traditional family structure.

In Vietnamese society, the only son is supposed to live with his parents, but Son, a real estate consultant, and his wife Huyen Dan are of a new generation. Economic development, family planning, globalisation and western cultures, are putting huge pressures on the Vietnamese family.

Son's wife, Huyen Dan, said living independently was much more comfortable than in the extended family.

"Now we can live as we choose, do what we want and eat what we like without having to worry every day that it may offend my parents-in-law," Dan said.

Dan, who is expecting her first child in a few weeks, said it was also important that she and her husband decide their own way to raise their children without too much interference from the parents.

"I was afraid that my parents-in-law, like other Vietnamese grandparents, would provide too much care and protection for my children, that it could hinder our ability to teach them," Dan said.

However, Dan and Son admit the benefits of the nuclear family structure for the young may come at the expense of the elderly as their children have less time to take care of their old parents.

Although, it had not been a problem so far for Dan and Son, as their parents are middle-aged and still working, they agreed it could become a problem when the parents got older and felt the need to have children living by their side.

In Viet Nam there are few retirement homes and the social welfare policy is not strong, so children still play the most important role in taking care of parents as they age.

Sociologists say the transformation from traditional to modern is having both positive and negative effects on all aspects of family life: structure, functions and culture.

"All coins have two sides," said Do Hoang Du, acting director of the Family Department under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. "The impacts present both opportunities and challenges."

Smaller-size families created more opportunities for family members to have more freedom, and be more active and independent, Du said.

"As young couples live independently from their parents and grandparents, their personal life is more appreciated. Family conflicts between family members due to generation gaps, especially between the in-laws, are also lessened," Du said.

However, three or four generations living in the same house greatly contributed to mutual assistance between family members. This created more favourable conditions to take good care of the elderly, Du said.

In fact, the break-up of the traditional family, particularly in rural areas, had caused hardship for the elderly who were often left in poor conditions, he said.

"They are more vulnerable (in rural areas) as most of them do not have a pension and have little access to modern social and health-care services."

Rising tide: Four generations of a family in Ha Noi's Old Quarter relax. Traditional multi-generation households have become less common in modern Vietnamese society. — VNS Photo
Contributing to the problem was the massive rural-urban migration, where more and more people left their parents and grandparents in the village to seek jobs and a better life in the cities.

While this sometimes improved family economics, the stability of family life faced other risks as members far from home were more exposed to social evils such as gambling, drugs and prostitution.

Dr Tran Thi Nhung of the Viet Nam Academy of Social Sciences said making enough money to survive also challenged intra-family relationships.

For many people, earning a living was their top priority, often at the expense of looking after each other, especially parents caring for their children, Nhung said.

She wrote in her study entitled The Vietnamese family in the new international context: "Because of the money burden, many parents do not spend as much time taking care of children as they would like to, especially in poor families, in rural areas and ethnic minority groups."

Heavier pressure on family life due to the money burden also led to rising domestic violence and divorce rates, which had very negative consequences for children's development, Dr Nhung said.

This was backed up in a 2006 survey of 9,300 households in all 64 provinces which showed one in five fathers and seven per cent of mothers spent no time at all taking care of their children due to the need to earn a living.

This has future consequences. A report from the Supreme People's Procuracy showed 71 per cent of adolescents who committed crimes had not received proper care from their families.

However, there is one social aspect of the family which appears to be getting a boost from the market economy, and that is women's equality, particularly in urban areas.

It's harder for a family to survive on just the husband's salary. As women share the economic burden, they are empowered to break out of their traditional roles as housewives and have stronger voices in the family.

More women are becoming successful in business and social activities, sometimes surpassing their husbands. While in general the head of the family still defaults to men, the new family model allows for either or both to play this role.

Tran Thanh Minh, 27, who works for an international auditing company in Ha Noi, agreed that gender was less often the only thing young people were looking at when it came to income-earning and decision-making.

"In my family, I decide on all the small, everyday things while on the big issues my husband and I have an equal say. We always discuss them to find the common voice," said Minh, who earns more money than her husband, a journalist.

However, Dr Khuat Thu Hong, co-director of the Ha Noi-based Institute for Social Development Studies, said the progress in achieving gender equality was modest and mostly seen in big cities in highly educated and high-income families.

On a national scale, gender-discrimination was still a serious issue as women remained burdened with far too many household chores while also working like men, Hong said. Domestic violence was also rising and women were still pressured to bear sons.

Meanwhile, the Family Department's Mr Du said the State and Government had been trying hard to focus on family development by promoting traditional values while reducing the negative effects of modern life on the family.

Du cited the adoption of new laws like the Law on Domestic Violence Prevention and Control and the Law on Gender Equality and the drafting of a new national Strategy for Development of Vietnamese family.

"While the old strategy put more focus on developing the household economy, the new one will concentrate more on measures to promote inter-family relationships as well as the relationship between the family and the society," he said.

"The goal is to preserve good traditional values while promoting new cultural values which have emerged in modern life, such as gender equality and children's rights.

"However, it should be understood that the State and Government can only help create legal foundations and a favourable social environment; it is the people themselves who decide how to build a happy family." — VNS

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